6 ways for businesses to survive the end of advertising

Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images.

In the past, advertising for businesses started out innocently enough. Maybe some local area flyers marketing, or a targeted direct mail campaign.

But times have changed. These days, lots of startups have begun experimenting with search engine marketing. People are leaving ad-funded media in droves, enticed by the likes of Netflix, Stan, Apple TV and Australia’s immense appetite for illegal streaming and downloading. Just recently, YouTube launched its ad-free YouTube Red product.

Some of us with a few grey hairs look back fondly on a time where “the audience” sat quietly in front of the TV in the lounge room, watched the ads, and said thank you for whatever programming they were lucky enough to receive. But those days are long gone, and for businesses hooked on advertising, that’s a big problem.

Here are six ways that businesses can survive the end of advertising.

1. Make great products

It may sound trite, but with less ability to force your message down people’s throats, there’s simply less places for bad products to hide. Great products will trump great marketing every time. A great product means that trial will convert to purchase. That purchase will become loyalty and advocacy. And that a customer base will become a community.

There are lots of ways to make great products, and these days there are even open source approaches like “design thinking” from the d.school at Stanford, or IDEO’s human-centred design process.

2. Understand your customers

How much do you really know about your customers? It’s time to find out.

That doesn’t necessarily mean big expensive research. User experience expert Jakob Nielsen suggests that speaking to just five users will uncover most of the usability problems in a product. What could having real conversations with five customers tell you about your brand?

3. Give something back

The assumption in advertising is that the value for your audience is in the entertainment content that your ad sits in. If we can’t rely on entertainment attracting people, we need to actually offer value in our communication. We need to give people a reason to listen to us, and engage. And despite what we’d like to think, it isn’t usually to find out more about our product.

Some brands create their own entertainment content, like Red Bull around extreme sports or BlendTec with their cult “Will It Blend?” videos. Others offer practical utility, like IBM’s Smarter Cities campaign that turned their outdoor ads into helpful shelters, seats and ramps.

4. Relevant advertising is useful information

Research has shown that the more relevant and targeted ads become, the less it is perceived as intrusive advertising, and the more it becomes useful information. The better you understand your customer, and the more you use super cool digital technologies like real-time bidding and demand-side platforms, the more you can make sure you are getting the right content to the right person at the right time in the right way.

5. Make your customers do the work

Again, by understanding our customers we can identify those who will be most interested in helping spread the good word — and should have a good idea about how we might incentivise them to do so. From ambassadors to advocacy programs there are a wealth of different models for engaging our brand communities. It can be as casual as Apple shipping their products with a slew of logo stickers, letting fans brand everything from your coffee cup to your cat. Or as blatant as Dropbox offering half a gig for every single person you bring to the family.

6. A little now and then won’t hurt

The good old days of huge, attentive television audiences may be gone, but there are still ad-funded media properties out there. This goes far beyond traditional media, now including a seemingly boundless range of vibrant new forms — from blogs and vlogs to curated collections and event streams. While they don’t deliver the scale and simplicity of a thirty-second spot in the middle of an episode of Friends, they’re still effective options worth looking into.

Brett Rolfe is the Chief Strategy Officer at Naked Communications (an Enero Group company). He’s a strategic generalist, creating solutions for clients by drawing on disciplines from psychology and cultural studies to behavioural economics and user-centred system design.

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